Talking about the elephant in the room

After a highly successful run of “Pretending Your Vote Counts” — a live info-comedy series based around the provincial election — Berni Stapleton, Neil Butler, Sean Panting, and Aiden Flynn are back with a similar-styled, monthly sketch comedy show focusing on local events.

Now with fresh blood Brad Hodder and chat host Roger Samson, “Not the Real Noose” is set to open at Rabbittown Theatre from November 30 to December 1 and monthly after that.

Elling Lien sat down with Aiden Flynn (AF), Neil Butler (NB) and Brad Hodder (BH) to talk about the news, the truth, and being funny.

So what is Not the Real Noose?

AF That’s a good question. I had a bitch of a time trying to figure out what the press release for this show was going to be, how to describe it. I had to be sure it encapsulated everything about it.

You could read the press release you wrote… I brought it along. (laugh)

AF Let’s see, what did I write afterwards?

NB It’s a live comedy sketch show with an emphasis on local current events.

AF That’s kind of close to what I wrote. It says “a combination sketch comedy show, talk show, and round-table political and pop culture chat show.”
We like to do stuff that keeps it very localized too, because I think national and international stuff gets its fair due. There’s a lot of other comedy groups covering that.

You had guests in your last run … Is that going to continue as part of this monthly show?

AF I think that’s one of my favourite components on the show, really. Especially with the election stuff. We talked to people that you would just not get to talk to in the normal course of an election.

Simon Lono, for example.

The only thing he got any sort of exposure for was that he was a Liberal who voted for a PC guy at a nomination meeting. Simon is an articulate guy, and he looks at stuff from all angles: municipal, provincial. He’s passionate, and to sit down and talk with him for twenty minutes was really bang on.

[This] sounds pretty much like the format of The Daily Show… There are bits and sketches you go through at the beginning, stuff at the news desk, and then an interview at the end… Is that what you’re going for?

AF Yeah, but there is a sort of news desk portion to it. But there are actual sketches.

NB We rip off a lot more than just the Daily show. (laugh)

BH We’re borrowing influences. (laugh)

NB There’s live music, interview, video, sketches, a news parody bit, but it’s funny that it does flow and work together. Thank God.

Is this unusual? Had you guys done this type of show before Pretending Your Vote Counts?

AF The most unusual thing about this is the amount of material you have to keep generating. Oh my God. It was really fun doing the election show, but it was not easy to crank it out. Seventy five percent of the show is brand new every week.

NB Being informed—that was a drag.

AF Being informed sucks, man.

NB Sometimes you don’t want to watch the news. I’ve got my own foolish political reasons for not wanting to watch the news, but when you have to write a comedy show about it, then you have got to sit through it.

And it is painful sometimes. And the pain doesn’t come from being informed, it’s the news… whether it’s CBC or NTV… Having to be engaged with the media is what I have a problem with.

What’s the difference between being informed and watching the news?

AF Watching the news can be wallpaper to your evening. It does happen around supper time and it’s sort of on, and maybe something will catch you.

But to be informed by the news—that’s something different. You have to form an opinion right away.

NB If you’re not being an active watcher—if you’re not questioning what you’re watching, then you’re not really paying attention. If I watch the news I have to question what it’s being filtered through, what perspective they approach the story from… It’s not fun, because then you get upset at whoever is behind the camera.

AF It’s the same with a paper too. My normal rhythm of a paper is turning the page every two seconds till something stops me from doing so.

BH Looking for the pictures.

AF Britney Spears in the paper again, oh my god! (laugh)

NB And then there’s the national news like The Globe. When I’m doing this show, I’m watching to see how Newfoundland is being covered. I always have a problem with it—but again you have to sit through it and suffer through it.

AF Last time I didn’t think we had the time to look at the media as much as we could have, but this time around I think I would like to watch the watchers a little more.

Why is it important to you guys that this show be local?

AF I think it’s important to the audience that it be local.

There is no one else doing this kind of thing. There are so few serial live shows happening in St. John’s—in Newfoundland even. We don’t have a late night talk show, or a regularly occurring comedy show that’s appearing live and people can go see.

NB You’ll get a commentary on CBC once a month. You’ll get Snook on NTV, and you’ve got Sean Panting doing songs on CBC Radio.

BH And you’ve got Andy Wells sitting in the mayor’s chair and people like Danny Williams sitting as premier—I mean why not do local? There’s so much stuff to be playing with.

Which brings me to my next question—who are your favourite people to impersonate?

AF Politicians are difficult. Sometimes it’s not as fun to do an impersonation as it is to do what you think the aid to that politician might do or say.

BH (To AF) Although I think your Ron Ellsworth is pretty amazing.

BH We don’t plan on going federal much, but I’m anticipating elections, so I’ve got to start working on my Dion right now.

NB There’s got to be a good Stéphane Dion.

AF Someone better start brushing up on a John Efford too, because whether we like it or not, it’s only a matter of time.

What will be the percentage of Andy Wells in the upcoming shows?

AF It will be about 15% Andy. He’s been quite newsworthy in the last month. [visiting the Dalai Lama]

NB We’ve been starting to call him “Ghandy.” Sounds like Ghandi.

How politically informed does your audience need to be to enjoy the show?

NB They don’t. We try to keep the show smart, but not clever.

We try to keep it topical but its stuff that’s on everybody’s radar that we’re dealing with.

I read an article recently called “Amusing Ourselves to Depth: Is The Onion our most intelligent newspaper?” in Reason Magazine that looked at news comedy stuff like The Onion, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, 22 Minutes… It was about how this form of comedy is in the position to be the most honest, truthful and entertaining forums for people to learn and talk about serious issues…

NB It goes back to the news agencies. You can’t trust what you’re being told. If they telling you at Fox that they’re Fair and Balanced, then you know they’re not.

If they come out and say these are all jokes, and these are all lies, then you can believe what you are told, which is fucked up.

AF What did we say the other day? “You’re being satirically informed”? I find that I enjoy getting my news from John Stewart.

And that’s, I think, what a lot of people do. They watch The Daily Show or The Colbert Report or 22 Minutes. They aren’t watching the news. They aren’t reading [the news.]

AF I will not waste my time watching something like CNN.

BH But Nancy Grace is awesome!

AF Even just hearing the name I think I just had a small aneurism. I have no tolerance for that kind of news. And of course people say Stewart has his own liberal biases.

BH But at least he wears them openly.

There is almost a sense of relief watching The Daily Show, The Colbert Repot, This Hour Has 22 Minutes because it doesn’t take itself too seriously but they’re dealing with the most serious issues on the go.

AF I can’t say this about everybody, but I think this is the way Newfoundlanders actually watch their news. In my house the editorializing of the news happened as you watched. It was ongoing. A news story would come up and my father would be like…

Calling out “Bullshit”?

AF Yeah, exactly, and then there’d be the “no, no, no, that’s not it.”

Sometimes that’s how I feel in the way these shows are put together. These shows are those arguments.

Are you going to do anything with tasers or pellet guns in the upcoming show?

BH I think tasers are definitely of the day, and pellet guns too.

The pellet gun thing at MUN was really weird. Really weird. That story bothered me on some strange level.

I think it’s interesting, the pellet gun thing, because it brought up the issue of what would happen if someone were to seriously bring a gun into school like that; how would the university inform people…

AF It did. These are weird areas that I don’t know if it’s just me kind of getting older now, but I see St. John’s and Newfoundland changing. We never used to worry about stuff like that. And now we are and I’m not sure why.

AF Mass media.

NB Globalization.

AF Mass media. We see it on the internet. But maybe there is something a little more immediate too that people are getting worried about.

Is the mass media affecting our culture, or is our culture reflective of what’s actually going on?

Like women being afraid to walk at night. …Is there comedy in all of this stuff?

AF The thing with comedy is that when you look back at your reaction with how you deal with stuff like that. That’s where the comedy is in a lot of this stuff. And if you don’t laugh at it sometimes you cry.

NB There was a quote I just read today ‘when something tragic happens and you say you can’t laugh at it, life doesn’t cease to be funny.’

…At the heart of it you have to entertain the audience. You don’t want to lecture at them. You’re there for the audience at the heart of it. But at the same time, for me, the way I’m approaching it is through comedy. The best way to deal with the worst things in life is to laugh at them.

BH And the audience will appreciate you more if you honestly approach something. If you look at stuff with an opinion.

It goes back to the question of why is it that people are drawn to all these comedy news shows… Because these shows have a lot of license. People think it’s impossible to make fun of something because it’s inappropriate, but we want to do it to make a point. It talks about the elephant in the room.

I think it’s probably the comedians who are able to talk about the big stuff before anyone else is able to make it okay or something.

Otherwise you don’t talk about that stuff.

AF Like when 9/11 happened, comedy was the first avenue in New York where people started talking about what had happened. Comedians there somehow figured out a way to start the diologue. That’s when people started to talk about what’s going on. That’s the only way people felt comfortable talking about the subject. And that was a while after.

People were probably just burning to talk about it in some honest way.

AF But no one thinks they can, or should. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a comedian or artist to do that kind of thing, but they have a great opportunity to do so. These kind of shows allow you to say things and do things and let you get away with things you couldn’t normally get away with saying or doing.

NB I think you do have that responsibility but you can’t wear that responsibility like a coat. You can’t be like, ‘look at me, I’m dealing with this serious thing, wooo!’

You’re out in public. You’re speaking to people in your community. You do have a responsibility.

AF That’s true. And you have as much a responsibility to listen as you do to speak as well, right?

And I don’t think people telling the jokes are necessarily suggesting they have an answer to a problem. They’re saying ‘hey man, this is a serious problem and we need to think about it.’

BH Just like you were saying with the taser thing, people are up in arms. But people should be pissed off. It’s incredible that happened.

NB I’m hoping somewhere in this show someone can get tased.

NB This poor guy from Poland, its f-ing tragic. There is no argument as far as I’m concerned. So say we go out and do the show and somebody gets tased. We’ve got to be careful with that because to the audience is it going to look like we’re making fun of that poor fucker that got killed, or it’s going to look like we’re tearing a new arsehole in the RCMP.

Know what I mean?

The article I was talking about before picked out The Onion as folks who don’t flinch when they’re talking about something [horrible.] Like “40,000 Brown People Dead Somewhere”, as a headline. They’re just pointing at how we treat stories like that, saying ‘that’s fucked!’ They’re pointing out how guilty all of us are for thinking something like that.

BH And we don’t question it enough. And I’m guilty of it too. I watch the news. You create a culture of watching the news and then you remind yourself or each other to question what you see, and what you read and what you write.

Or, in your case, to make it funny. (laugh)

AF We don’t take ourselves this seriously normally.

We’re trying to sound smart now. You’ve led us down a weird road Elling.

NB And that’s a nice thing about working on this show. We don’t have these discussions among ourselves. Everyone is professional and focused on making a good, funny show.

And that’s it. At the end of the day you’re creating a show.

Not the show. But do the ideas get too heavy in your own mind?

NB It bothers me, definitely. Media control, the state of the world, the way we get our information… All this stuff. For sure. This is on my mind when we’re putting this show together.
But then at our story meetings it doesn’t come out like that.

AF The background is serious and it’s heavy but at the end of the day you want to write a good sketch. When it actually gets down to selecting material the question is, ‘is it funny?’

That’s the rule.

So everyone out there, rest assured, it’s funny.

You can catch Not the Real Noose from November 30 to December 1 at Rabbittown Theatre at the corner of Linscott and Merrymeeting. Showtime is 8pm. Tickets are $17.50. Call 739-8220 for ticket information.